Sheriff Principal Derek Pyle has offered his thoughts on the future of the justice system in a new era of technology following the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a wide-ranging interview following his recent succession to senior Sheriff Principal, the 69-year-old spoke of his experiences during the health crisis.

The judicial member piloted the use of virtual hearings in his sheriffdom of Grampian, Highland and Islands and sat in the first ever virtual civil debate and Fatal Accident Inquiry.

Just a few months into the crisis, he also recommended the future use of online hearings as the norm for summary criminal trials.

Now, more than two years on from the first national lockdown, he believes the pandemic has brought about welcome technological advances which may never have happened without it.

“There has been massive change,” said the Sheriff Principal. “People say that it would’ve taken twenty years to achieve the amount of change we’ve seen in the last two years.

“I would say a lot of that change would never have happened at all.

“We now have to accept that the world has changed dramatically and we have to seize the opportunities of this new age, while also being careful not to throw out the good old stuff.

“We’ve now got in-person hearings, we’ve got hybrid and we’ve got fully virtual and all of these will find their place in the system. But we mustn’t treat virtual as just a ‘useful tool in the box’. Experience tells me that when that happens it’s just forgotten about.

“We’ve been in the vanguard worldwide on all of this. It would be a shame if we ended up just watching other jurisdictions from the side-lines and wondering after a decade or so why we didn’t keep embracing change.”

He added: “The national group which I chair has recommended that we establish sheriffdom virtual trial courts for domestic abuse cases. It will take time to establish, but it’s an example of how you have to approach new technology: test it fully and properly with an open mind and then sit down and work out what works and what doesn’t – and make informed decisions in the light of it.”

However, while he has been a strong supporter of the use of technology, the Sheriff Principal does not shy away from the fact that it can be daunting at times.

“Would I want to start my judicial career now with the prospect of sitting in front of a screen all day?” he asked. “Probably not. But maybe that’s because I’m 69, not 49.

“During the first virtual trial, the complainer’s Wi-Fi signal went down during her evidence. I thought that must be dreadful for her. But when she came back on a few minutes later it was obvious she wasn’t fazed at all. And I thought – she’s 24; she’s used to it.”

Now the longest serving sheriff principal in Scotland, SP Pyle has seen his fair share of change in the courts, even prior to the pandemic.

He started out at a prestigious Edinburgh law firm before moving on to a practice specialising in divorce cases which at that time were all heard in Edinburgh.

“It was a divorce factory,” he said, recounting stories of private investigators photographing adulterous husbands and wives looking to secure a divorce on the Friday before remarrying on the Saturday.

“In Parliament House, you would be running about all over the place. It was great fun. The place was full of folk, whether counsel, solicitors or divorcing parties. The train from Glasgow Queen Street, which arrived in time for the ten o’clock start, was called the Divorce Express.”

This first major change came when divorce hearings were moved out of Edinburgh and into local sheriff courts, prompting a change of direction for the lawyer.

“Much like today, many predicted that the sky would fall in,” he said. “Of course, we all just adapted and got on with it. I had my own practice by then and had already taken steps to change the focus of the business.”

He went on to become a partner in a large commercial law firm, before taking up post as a sheriff in 2000.

During his career, he was also a founding board member of the then newly created Scottish Court Service – a role he believes helped him in his position as Sheriff Principal.

He said: “Seeing how the system works, I now understand it far better. It can all be pretty frustrating at times for everyone, but the court service is led by good people and they and their excellent staff in all the sheriff courts have much of which they should be proud.”

More recently, he has also experienced a shift in the way sheriff court appeals are dealt with, through the creation of the Sheriff Appeal Court in 2015.

“I was initially no fan of the reform,” he said. “But I’ve changed my mind. I think the court is well respected and our new President, Sheriff Principal Marysia Lewis, has a clear vision about where the court should go from here.”

SP Pyle went on to explain how the role of Sheriff Principal has changed dramatically over the years, particularly during the pandemic.

“I hate the word administration – sometimes used to describe the role of the sheriff principal when not sitting in court,” he said. “It’s just plain wrong; the role nowadays is managerial – leadership. And that is just going to increase.

“We are already working on practice notes which will be Scotland-wide, so that practitioners know what to expect in each court. It’s important to acknowledge local culture, but much of the practice of the sheriff court should be standard across the country. That’s something to look out for in the months ahead. It’s a priority if we are going to emerge in good fettle from the pandemic backlogs.”

He is also keen to recognise the vital role played by the legal profession during the pandemic and the difficulties the criminal bar has faced.

He said: “We do have to recognise the role of solicitors and advocates over the last two years. It’s been tough for everyone, but at least judges knew that they’d get their salary every month. That’s not been the same for the self-employed.

“I think the profession’s efforts have been Herculean. But for them, the system would have collapsed.”

He added that he is concerned about the future of the profession and the aging profile of practitioners in the sheriff courts, saying: “We can’t rely much longer on a system run by an older generation like me. And that is particularly so if we want to embrace technological change.

“National budgets are incredibly tight just now, but if the justice system is to do its job, it’s self-evident that proper funding is required for all parts of it – not just those that are paid their wages from the public purse.

“And in leading on reform the Sheriffs Principal have to take into account what the profession can and cannot do. Yes, business models will change – and rightly so. But practitioners have to be supported in that and in a general sense just appreciated for the vital role they play.”

So there is still much to be done for SP Pyle, who was due to retire in October but has decided to postpone.

When does he plan to hang up his wig and gown? “Don’t know yet,” he said. “But, as they say, the graveyard is full of indispensable people. So, I’ll try not to outstay my welcome.”

You may also enjoy our interview with Lord Woolman on the Tribunal System in the pandemic, what lies ahead and new lawyer advice.

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